Sunday, December 23, 2012

"What were you trying to accomplish?"

Recently I had an interesting conversation with a white, male friend who had just finished reading my young adult novel, The R Word, which tells the story of a very sheltered, white teenager named Rachel.   Rachel lives in a mostly segregated suburb and, like lots of us white folk, has never seriously thought about race or considered the impact of racism.  She, again like lots of us white folk, believes that we live in a "post racial" society and that it is best to be colorblind. Through a series of fortunate events, Rachel joins an after-school club that meets in the nearby city and, for the first time, makes friends with teens of color.  She begins to see the world through their perspective, and comes to realize her own white privilege and her family's aversive racism.

Ok, back to my friend.  He liked the novel, and complimented me on its writing style.  Then he said, "There's one thing I'm wondering about.  What were you trying to accomplish in writing this book?"

I have to admit I was surprised, because I thought the book's forward and discussion questions made that pretty clear.  I responded, "Isn't it obvious?"

"Not to me," he said, his expression open and smiling, "because I've never really thought about any of this before."

That's the point.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

We Like the Safe Ones

I read an interesting opinion piece this morning titled, "It's time to free Rosa Parks from the bus."  Check it out here:

The author describes a Rosa Parks very different from the fatigued elderly woman that many white school children learn about.  The way I learned it, Mrs. Parks was just too tired to move to the back of the bus that fateful day.  Her determination to stay put unintentionally sparked the Civil Rights Movement. Thinking about it now, that's a pretty ridiculous scenario.  Why was I taught it that way?  Because it makes Rosa Parks safe.  She didn't mean any harm.  She wasn't militant, and certainly wasn't violent.  She was just tired. Rosa Parks was a black woman that white people could accept without fear.  For this same reason I never learned about Malcolm X, only about the non-violent Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  Dr. King, with his non-violent resistance, was safe in a way that Malcolm X wasn't.

There's a theory in critical race studies called "interest convergence." It claims that whites will only move toward racial equality when it benefits us in some way.  As soon as we have to give up a position of dominance, according to this theory, many whites will back off and leave social justice for someone else to worry about.  I think this theory applies to who gets designated as a "hero" of the Civil Rights Movement and who gets left out of the story in many circles. As a white, it's in my best interest to recognize, and even to applaud those activists who are "safe" because I can now proclaim myself as not-racist without the uncomfortable experience of facing the anger bred by centuries of oppression.  Ah, I feel so much better about myself now.